Community members could play a critical role in overseeing the activities of county law enforcement, according to Congresswoman Jackie Speier.
Speier addressed the members of Fixin’ San Mateo County, a grassroots organization working to establish civilian oversight of the sheriff’s office and an inspector general with subpoena power, as a special guest at their monthly membership meeting Tuesday night. Speier, who endorsed the movement earlier this year, talked about the value of civilian oversight in democracy, answering questions from the public and sharing her own experiences serving on oversight committees. Fifty-three people attended the virtual event.
“I actually think, in public life, we often miss one of the most important functions that we can engage in—and that is oversight,” she said. “What you're doing is just fundamentally good, grassroots political action. I applaud you and wish you great success as you move forward.”
While elected officials have a responsibility to act as a check and balance on each other, Speier told the members of Fixin’ SMC and other attendees that it was a power “they don't take full advantage of.” She said it was therefore necessary for the community to have a voice in the activities of the sheriff’s office.
The organization has been gaining support over the last several months, with recent endorsements coming from the North Fair Oaks Community Council and the county’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commission, which both voted to send letters of support to the board. Last week, the Redwood City Council also voted unanimously to draft a letter outlining the city’s support of Fixin’ SMC.
“We invest annually $300 million into [the sheriff’s office],” said Jim Lawrence, board chair of Fixin’ SMC, at Tuesday’s meeting. “We deserve some accountability and transparency.”
One of the greatest strengths of an oversight board, Speier said, is its ability to access critical information about the activities of the sheriff’s office. While some records are classified, she said, others should be made available for public scrutiny—the sheriff’s office’s absentee record or the number of people held in county jail, for example.
“I actually asked that question of our sheriff because I'm concerned that people who can't make bail are sitting in the county jail, unnecessarily and actually at a cost to taxpayers,” she said. “So there's lots of elements that you can be working on that will be, I think, quite valuable.”
Prior to the June 7 primary election, the candidates for sheriff shared differing opinions on civilian oversight. Sheriff-elect Christina Corpus said she supported the mission of Fixin' SMC and looked forward to working with them and the board to come up with the best model for a civilian advisory or oversight board. Sheriff Carlos Bolanos said while he looked forward to sitting down with the group, he thought the word “oversight” was “misleading for everybody.”
“I don't see a model where a group of residents is going to tell me necessarily what to do,” Bolanos said at the time.
Other residents and at least one Redwood City Council candidate have raised concerns for an civilian oversight board to supervise the county sheriff’s office.
At the Redwood City Pulse’s City Council Candidates’ Forum, Madigan said that when it comes to law enforcement oversight, he believed that the community “needs to be at the table.” But, he warned the community should proceed “with caution.”